Intel vice-president rides next wave of innovation

10 Nov 2011

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Irishman Rory McInerney is vice-president in charge of Intel's Architecture Group and director of the Microprocessor Development Group. His group is responsible for developing Intel Xeon and Itanium processors for data centres

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Rory McInerney is the Intel vice-president responsible for creating chips that power the world’s data centres, e-commerce sites and social networks.

One of the great ironies of the cloud computing age is that most of us are already using the cloud but don’t realise it. We shop on eBay and Amazon, we talk to our friends on Facebook and Twitter, we store documents on Gmail or Hotmail, we watch TV shows on iPads and we buy and store our songs on iTunes.

While we experience these things on our smartphones, tablets and PCs, a lot of the action is actually happening via the internet in data centres here in Ireland, where our cool climate and geographic location are actually national assets.

When the PC revolution gained pace in the 1990s, most Irish people weren’t aware that half of the Pentium processors shipped globally were manufactured here in Ireland.

As cloud computing becomes the norm and virtually any connected device will be able to engage in high-end computing, it is fitting that it happens to be an Irishman who is at the helm of Intel’s Architecture and Microprocessor Development groups.

Intel chip power

From Limerick, Rory McInerney is in charge of developing the Intel Xeon and Itanium chips that power 90pc of the world’s servers. His group is responsible for creating chips that account for one-third of Intel’s annual output. McInerney is one of three Irish vice-presidents at Intel, including Anne Kelleher and Eamon Sinnott, who are both vice-presidents in charge of manufacturing and run Intel’s manufacturing plants in New Mexico and Leixlip respectively.

As McInerney explains, he is working on the high-end chips that will power the cloud and supercomputers long into the future. “My focus is also on products that won’t exist for five years.

“I think the way I look at today and the future, it is all about waves of innovation. When we first connected PCs to the internet, suddenly whole waves of innovation took place, leading to notebook computers, e-commerce, Wi-Fi and multiplayer video games.

“And that’s not that long ago, it’s relatively recent. And in the last decade computing became mobile. The revolution now is that data is pervasive.”

McInerney has a point. Anyone can perform a Google search on their mobile phone, or they can take a picture with their phone’s camera and Google Goggles will go off and do a search based on that image. Apple’s iPhone 4S comes with a voice technology called Siri that will make calls for you, send text messages, book appointments and perform high-end computing searches on databases like Yelp or Wolfram Alpha, all powered by the human voice.

“The wave that this is creating is immense. Ten years ago you paid to make voice calls. Today voice is free,” McInerney points out, which brings to mind Microsoft’s decision to buy Skype for US$8.5bn.

"When I say innovation I’m also thinking business models. We’ve just had a baby daughter and I can use my smartphone to go to Amazon and order nappies. This wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.

"If you look forward to the next wave, this is where the data centre is going to become pivotal. Think of all the other devices out there that this can connect into – cars, sign posts, smart meters. Many of those devices are isolated today but if you can connect them wirelessly into the cloud then you unleash the next wave of innovation."

The future of data with mobile devices

He has a point. Everyone knows the moment in Minority Report where Tom Cruise’s character’s presence sparks a street sign to say ‘John Anderton: you could use a Guinness right now’. Well, that future isn’t far off when you think of how mobile devices can integrate with a data centre perhaps thousands of miles away.

"These signs and vehicles will have to be smart and connected to the internet and capable of talking with your notebooks, tablets, phones and connect to the data centre. My group is coming up with the microprocessors that will power that next wave."

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McInerney points out that the world, because of all these mobile cloud devices, is going to be awash with data, which will mean we need ways to make sense of all this information. This reminds me of something I heard recently about data being the new oil in the 21st century, and how analytics will be the combustion engine for a new wave of products and services.

In recent weeks, HP completed the acquisition of Autonomy for stg£7.8bn, which will position HP as a leader in the large and growing enterprise information management space that McInerney is talking about. Autonomy was set up by another Irishman, Carrick-on-Suir native Mike Lynch, with a stg£10,000 loan from his parents.

"We serve 379 of the top 500 supercomputers in the world, and 49 of the top 100 supercomputers in the world," McInerney explains. "The miracle of our age is the fact that the No 1 supercomputer a decade ago now sits on most people’s desks at work and most of our mobile devices in our pockets can connect to high-end computing over the internet.

"Governments such as the US and China are investing heavily in high-performance computing because they realise that by having the most powerful computers it creates economic opportunities in the form of spin-out companies and areas you can leverage, like medical research or financial trading."

Rory McInerney’s background

McInerney graduated as an electrical engineer from UCC in 1986 and wound up working at the semiconductor division of Philips in Eindhoven. It was while holidaying in LA in 1990 that he decided to send a letter to Intel requesting an interview, which was duly granted. McInerney had a job offer before he flew back to Holland.

He joined Intel at a fateful time for the technology giant; the PC revolution was about to kick off, which would be powered by the Pentium, and the company had decided to begin manufacturing these chips in Ireland.

"I remember talking with a friend of mine, wondering if the PC thing would take off. Before I knew it, Intel had moved from the 386 to the 486 processor and the age of the CPU (central processing unit) had begun. I focused on the PC side of the business until 10 years ago when I moved to the high performance end of the business."

A founding member of the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), McInerney attended the recent Global Irish Economic Forum and describes the experience as invaluable.

"A lot of ideas were planted in people’s minds and some of those seeds will grow roots."

INTEL FACTS AND FIGURES

$500m: Investment in next-generation infrastructure at Intel’s Leixlip operations that will generate 1,000 new jobs.

$14bn: Intel’s recent Q3 revenues, which surpassed $14bn for the first time.

$2.5bn: Revenues of Intel’s data centre group, up 15pc year-on-year

Being based in California, McInerney could only look from a distance at the changes that have occurred in Ireland over the last 20 years.

"There were two phases of development as far as I can see. When I grew up in the 1980s the opportunities were poor. Foreign direct investment (FDI) such as Intel were the catalyst in the 1990s and the 2000s and created growth that was very sustainable and developed an export economy.

"The second phase brought with it a cocktail of issues; the euro arrived, Ireland lost its ability to control interest rates, the infusion of cheap money and people getting drunk on property. Ireland isn’t alone. There are areas of California with a difficult housing situation, too."

In conclusion, he says for Ireland to succeed in an age of science, business analytics and high-end computing, the key will be two-fold.

"Firstly, we need to create research centres in academia that are commercially relevant and involve rotations of academic staff in and out of industry. Intel’s former CEO Craig Barrett was a professor at Stanford and joined the company on a rotation and decided to stay.

"You also need to become a more risk tolerant country and by that I mean you must allow people to make mistakes and try again. Failure in business is clearly a learning event.

"Now the opportunity for Ireland is to show the world just how fast it can recover. This time I would like to see Ireland pair its prowess at winning FDI with the creation of strong indigenous companies."

Silicon Republic has joined forces with the Irish Technology Leadership Group to bring you The Silicon Valley 50 most influential Irish-American people in the tech world ahead of the ITLG Innovation Summit in California on 12-13 March.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com